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Theo's Best: Trades: Number Two

You may recall back before the most recent Ice Age, we started a series here at OTM called Theo's Best Trades. Then we had that whole thousand years of darkness, pestilence, and flying grizzly bears of death thing. You remember. But, good news, the series is back! Over the next week the next few articles in the series should pop up, assuming I don't go back and re-write the first three before finishing the last three, adding overly snazzy special effects, deleted scenes and extraneous, borderline racist characters in attempt to get you to read them again.

In case you missed the first three parts to the series they can be found here (five, four, and three). I recommend reading them first if you haven't already because without that context you just won't understand the depth and symbolism involved when the butler tells Police Chief Johnson to go eff himself.

Enough of that. Theo Epstein's second best trade, after the jump.

2. Nomar Garciaparra and Matt Murton for Orlando Cabrera (2004)

That's the simple version. Here's how Baseball Reference lists the trade:

The Minnesota Twins sent Doug Mientkiewicz to the Boston Red Sox. The Montreal Expos sent Orlando Cabrera to the Boston Red Sox. The Chicago Cubs sent Francis Beltran, Alex Gonzalez and Brendan Harris to the Montreal Expos. The Chicago Cubs sent Justin Jones (minors) to the Minnesota Twins.

Yes, this deal is so old one of the participating teams no longer exists. [in old man voice] I remember when the Red Sox sent Stinky McTurd to the St. Louis Browns, who sent Harry "Baldy" Harrison to the Washington Senators who sent Cornpone Van Smalls to the Indiana Nappers of the Independent league, who completed the trade by sending a bunt cake, two bushels of corn and a dog whistle to the East Greenville Horseteeth, a team that, technically speaking, did not exist. Point being, the Nomar trade happened a while ago.

Here's your more serious opening: if trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees was the Red Sox original sin, one which, as the story goes, doomed the team to failure, then perhaps trading Nomar Garciaparra restored the virtue of the franchise.

That's a lot to put on a trade, of course, but then it's important to recall how Nomar was perceived in Boston in the years leading up to the deal. Looking back it's easy to think of the post-trade Nomar, a broken down, lesser version of the player he once was. To properly analyze the deal, you have to look at the perceptions of the players at the time.

Nomar was traded to Chicago on July 31st, 2004. Up to that time he had hit .323/.370/.553 for the Red Sox over parts of nine seasons. That's a career .553 slugging percentage from a shortstop. In his entire career Derek Jeter has slugged .553 never times. (To be fair he once slugged .552, though that was his only time slugging over .500.) At the time, the argument could be made Nomar was better than Jeter. It may or may not be correct, but that you could defend the position should indicate how valuable Nomar had been to the Red Sox in the first nine seasons of his career.

Nomar's contract was up after the 2004 season and the two sides had not been able to agree on an extension. Nomar had turned down a four year, $60 million contract extension from the Red Sox. This while perpetual counterpart Jeter was in the midst of a ten year, $189 million deal. Nomar felt disrespected.

This feeling also stemmed from the Red Sox attempted trade for Alex Rodriguez, then of the Texas Rangers. Rodriguez was considered the best shortstop in the game at the time and was also a few years into the richest contract in the game, the ten year, $252 million deal he signed to leave the Seattle Mariners. So the Red Sox would spend literally hundreds of millions on Rodriguez, but not on Garciaparra. What's more, not having room for two shortstops, the Red Sox had agreed to deal Nomar to the Chicago White Sox for Magglio Ordonez, conditioned on the completion of the Rodriguez trade.

From the point of view of the Red Sox front office, In an ideal world nobody would know about the conditional deal which fell apart when the Sox failed to consummate the Rodriguez trade, but of course, news got out. The end result of all of the above was Nomar feels under appreciated, disrespected, and probably more than a little bit angry at the Red Sox front office,

Then in 2004, the injuries set in. Nomar missed time with a chronically sore Achilles tendon and the Red Sox didn't have much in the way of a replacement shortstop for him while he was out. Six different players played shortstop for the 2004 Red Sox. Nomar and Orlando Cabrera are the easy ones, but don't forget Pokey Reese, Cesar Crespo, Ricky Gutierrez, and Mark Bellhorn.

So, the fact that Nomar couldn't be counted on to be in the lineup combined with his impending free agency, strained relationship with the front office, and an under reported aspect, Nomar's deteriorating defense. Theo Epstein wanted a player who could provide plus defense every day and it became clear Nomar was no longer that player.

Through all of that Nomar Garciaparra was still the face of the Boston Red Sox. What's more, Theo Epstein had been GM for not quite two years at the time of the deal. Theo has since said his career was riding on the outcome of this deal, and it's hard to dispute that. It's unlikely he would have been fired immediately had the deal blown up in his face, but it isn't inconceivable that it might have so damaged his reputation that he may have faced more oversight and left at some point whether of his own accord or not.

As we know though, the deal did work out. It was a brilliant instance of selling at the height of the market for a player. Nomar went on to hit well for the Chicago Cubs, but his injury problems continued and his defense worsened. He played shortstop exclusively for the Cubs in 2004 but next season he spent the majority of his time at third base before moving to first base, a much less demanding position, when he joined the Dodgers as a free agent the following season.

The primary player the Sox received, shortstop Orlando Cabrera, was in many ways the anti-Nomar. While Nomar enjoyed superstar status, Cabrera joined the Red Sox from the baseball Siberia of Montreal. His name recognition wasn't in the same ballpark. To that point in his career Nomar had been an exceptional hitter whereas Cabrera was a below average hitter (to that point in his career he carried an OPS+ of 84, sixteen percent below average). But despite Nomar's good defensive reputation, he had slipped in the field, whereas Cabrera still was an above average defensive player.

The essence of this deal was receiving certainty for uncertainty, adequacy for occasional brilliance, and sanity for chaos. With Cabrera in the fold, the Red Sox defense improved, the drama died down after the deal, and the team rolled to a 42-18 record the rest of the way. Then, in the playoffs... well, you know.

Unlike other trades in this series, this one wasn't a heist. This one wasn't getting something for nothing, or pulling the wool over another GM's eyes and convincing them to take garbage in return for a superstar. This deal was actually relatively fair. But, for the 2004 Boston Red Sox to trade the face of their franchise, the man Ted Williams had put his arm around, in the midst of a pennant race for a relative unknown, speaks well of the GM. We'll never know whether the 2004 team would have gone on to win the World Series had Epstein not made this trade. Answering that question is a fool's errand, but that Epstein had, frankly, the chutzpah, the sheer audacity, to make a deal he knew would be so wildly unpopular it could end his career because thought it would improve the team and increase the chances of winning more than just the Wild Card, should be impressive even a decade and a half after the fact.